Social Comparison Theory: Meaning, Examples, & Application

In this article, you will learn:

  1. Which Researcher Proposed Social Comparison Theory?
  2. Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory
  3. Social Comparison Theory Examples
  4. How to Test Social Comparison Theory?
  5. When Social Comparison Theory is Bad?
  6. What Role Certain Types of Magazines Played in Social Comparison Theory in Teens?
  7. What Kind of Perspective Does Social Comparison Theory Take on Human Nature?
  8. Schacter’s Theory of Emotion and Why the Social Comparison Theory is Relevant?
  9. How to Cite Leon Festinger Theory of Social Comparison APA?
  10. Social Comparison Theory and Social Media
  11. Social Comparison Theory Articles

Leon Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory explains how people evaluate their opinions and abilities by comparing themselves to others. Festinger claimed that individuals have the innate drive to observe outside images so as to evaluate their own opinions and abilities.

These images may be a reference to objective reality or in comparison to other individuals. Further, the individuals take images that are presented by others to be attainable and realistic.

As a result, they draw comparisons among themselves, others, and the idealized images.

Advanced Psychology

Which Researcher Proposed Social Comparison Theory?

Leon Festinger, a social psychologist, was the one who made the theory of social comparison in 1954. In his initial theory, Festinger made a number of hypotheses to develop the theory and present relevant details.

Since the introduction of Social Comparison Theory to Social Psychology, there have been a number of developments. Research studies indicate that social comparisons are more complicated relative to their initial understanding.

For instance, new domains and motives for social comparison have been introduced. The motives behind social comparison include self-enhancement, maintaining a positive self-evaluation, perceptions of relative standing, etc.

In this article, we will discuss what is social comparison theory, social comparison theory examples, and how to test social comparison theory.

Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory

Social comparison theory states that we evaluate ourselves based on how we compare with others.

Leon Festinger first rolled out social comparison theory which states that humans have a natural or an inherent drive to evaluate their opinions and abilities in comparison to others.

He also claimed that the drive to compare oneself with a particular person decreases as the difference between one’s own opinions and abilities and that of the other person increases.

The social comparison theory also states that people draw comparisons with others when no objective evaluations are available.

Likewise, Leon Festinger made a number of hypotheses to develop social comparison theory and present correct data.

Let’s have a look at each of the hypotheses to define social comparison theory.

How Did Leon Festinger Theorize Social Comparison Theory?

Hypotheses I: Humans Have the Innate Drive To Evaluate Their Opinions And Abilities

In the first instance, opinions and abilities may appear to be very different. However, together, they influence the behavior of people to a great extent. In other words, your opinions and beliefs about the circumstances you are into and your assessment of what you are capable of doing impact your behavior.

Further, it’s important to differentiate between opinions and the assessment you make of your abilities. This is because it may be easy to consider the evaluation of your ability as an opinion about such an assessment.

Your abilities are demonstrated only through your performance which is supposed to depend on a particular ability. Now, how well or poorly you have performed is measured in two ways. It is either measured through other’s opinions about your performance.

Measuring Performance Based On Others Opinions

This typically happens when there exist no objective criteria to measure your performance. For example, a writer will evaluate his ability to write a book largely on others’ opinions about his ability to write.

Measuring Performance Based on Objective Criteria

However, the evaluations of one’s ability will depend less on others’ opinions where there are proper objective criteria available for evaluation. In this case, the performance is evaluated based on the actual comparison of one’s performance with the performance of other people.

For example, a swimmer will evaluate his swimming ability by comparing the time he takes to complete a lap with the time taken by others.

Thus, people undertake behavior that helps them to know whether their opinions are correct. Likewise, they will show behavior that will help them assess their abilities accurately.

Hence, social comparison theory suggests that in order to learn about our own abilities and attitudes, we compare ourselves with others. Or consider others’ opinions to evaluate our opinions and abilities.

Therefore, it is important to respond to the question of how people assess their opinions and abilities.

Hypotheses II. People Evaluate Their Opinions and Abilities By Comparing With Opinions and Abilities of Others if There Is No Objective or Non-Social Criteria Available

In many cases, it is not possible to assess if an opinion is correct immediately by referring it to some physical or objective basis. For example, it is easy to test your opinion on a container’s leakage by filling it with some liquid.

However, it is difficult to test your opinion on when a pandemic will end?

The same is the case in respect of one’s abilities. For example, how should one decide if one is intelligent or not? Likewise, one may find out how much time it takes to complete one lap in a pool. But how should he decide if this is good enough? In other words, what does it mean to simply know one’s own time of lap completion in respect of his ability?

Therefore in the case of both opinions and abilities, there are times when no physical or objective criteria are available for evaluation.

In such cases, the subjective correctness of one’s opinions and accurate evaluation of his abilities depends on how one compares himself with others.

Conclusion II A Subjective Evaluations of Opinions and Abilities are Unstable if there are no Physical or Social Comparisons

There are studies on the “level of aspiration” showcasing the instability of evaluations of abilities in the absence of comparison with other persons.

Experiment When A Person Has The Opportunity To Compare

An individual has to perform a task including a series of trials. Such trials may involve throwing darts at a target, a series of information tests, a series of puzzles, or the like.

The individual performing a series of tasks is informed about the score after each trial. Furthermore, he is also asked to state the score he expects to get in the next trial.

As we can see, it is clear that the individual’s stated “level of aspiration” reveals his sense of good performance. In other words, the individual’s stated level of aspiration is nothing but the self-evaluation of his ability to score well.

As per the study, it is clear that an individual feels he has performed well in a task if he scores as well as he said he expected to do. However, such a person feels he has experienced a failure if he scores less than his “aspirations”.

Experiment When A Person Does Not Have The Opportunity To Compare

As per research studies, an individual’s performance fluctuates if his “level of aspiration” fluctuates markedly.

This means an individual’s performance previously considered as good is no longer good if he scores better than the previous one. Likewise, an individual’s performance drops if his “level of aspiration” drops.

Thus, these experiments showcase that evaluation of what is good performance continues to fluctuate even after a person has had a good deal of experience at a task.

You can also find similar instability in the case of opinions.

Say, for instance, people are asked to make judgments of how far the point of light moves. Such judgments continue to fluctuate before there are any comparison persons.

Corollary II B: Individuals will not evaluate their opinions or abilities through comparison with others if an objective, non-social basis of such an evaluation is readily available.

Hochbaum conducted an experiment.

In such an experiment, the experimenter intimated to 50% of the subjects that they were extremely good at making correct judgments. This means these subjects received an objective basis for feeling that their opinion was likely to be correct.

Then, he informed the remaining 50% of the subjects that they were extremely bad at making such judgments. This means these subjects received an objective basis for feeling that their opinion was not likely to be correct.

Further, the experimenter asked both the groups to write down their opinions and in return gave each subject a slip of paper.

This slip informed the subjects about the opinions of each other person in the group. In this way, the subjects were made to feel that most of the others in the group disagreed with them.

Thus, it was observed that the subjects who believed that their opinion was probably correct did not change their opinions very often. This was despite the fact that such subjects disagreed with others in the group.

However, the subjects believing that their opinion was probably not correct changed their opinion very frequently.

Hypothesis III: An Individual’s Tendency to Compare With A Specific Person Decreases as the Difference Between Such A Person’s Opinion or Ability and His Own Increases.

This is another important hypothesis of Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory.

It states that an individual does not compare his opinions or abilities with those quite divergent from him in order to evaluate his own opinions or capabilities.

This means it is not possible for an individual to accurately compare his own ability with someone who has the same ability too diverse from his own.

Such a comparison is not possible irrespective of the other person possessing the ability either above or below his level.

In other words, the individual does not have a tendency to compare himself with the other person having too divergent capabilities from his own.

For instance, a college student will never compare himself with the patients suffering from a mental illness to evaluate his own intelligence. L

Likewise, an individual does not compare himself with those having extremely divergent opinions for his own in order to evaluate his own opinions.

Say, for instance, an individual believes that Negroes are the intellectual equals of whites. Such a person will never compare his opinion with someone belonging to an anti-Negro group in order to evaluate his opinion.

In other words, there is a self-imposed restriction in the range of opinion or ability with which a person compares himself.

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Corollary III-A: An Individual Will Choose Someone Close to His Own Ability or Opinion, Given a Range of Possible Persons for Comparison.

Whittemore conducted a study to examine the relationship between performance and competition.

The experimenter asked the subjects to sit around a table and work on a given set of tasks. Further, each subject received ample opportunity to observe how the others were progressing.

After the experiment, the subjects stated in the introspective reports that they had almost always spontaneously selected their close comparison target.

Corollary III B: An Individual Cannot Make a Subjectively Precise Evaluation of His Opinion or Ability In Case The Only Comparison Available Is A Divergent One.
Experiment I

There is evidence supporting the above conclusion in terms of abilities but not in terms of opinions.

Hoppe conducted an experiment to test the level of aspiration in individuals.

Such an experiment showcased that the subjects did not experience success or failure when they scored very far above or very far below their level of aspiration respectively.

In other words, this immensely disparate score did not present any grounds for self-evaluation.

Experiment II

Dreyer performed another experiment in which he compared the scores of high school children with the reported average score of boys like themselves.

As a part of the experiment, the high school children were made to score either very far above at, or very far below the reported average.

Further, the high school children were asked to take a series of trials. After the trials, the high school children were asked how well they performed on the test?

There were five possible categories of response. The top two were good or very good and the bottom two were poor or very poor. In the middle was a confused response of fair. Further, the high school children scoring very far below and above the reported group average gave a fair response more often than those scoring the group average.

Besides this, the persons scoring average reported better performance than those scoring far above the group average.

Thus, it is clear that individuals select comparison targets to evaluate their abilities and opinions. Further, the discrepancy between the person’s own opinion or ability and that of another person is one of the major factors governing such a selectivity.

Derivation A (from I, II, III): Subjective Evaluations of Opinions or Abilities Are Stable When Comparison is Available With Those Close to One’s Opinions or Abilities.

As we have presumed, an individual’s evaluation of his opinion or ability is unstable if such an evaluation is done without comparison with others.

Now, let’s assume that the individual is offered an opportunity to make a comparison with others.

In such a case, the individual will take the opportunity and compare his ability or opinion with others. Such a comparison would have a considerable impact on the individual’s self-evaluation. This is true for both abilities and opinions.

Derivation B (from I, II, III): The Availability of Comparison With Those Having Different Opinions or Abilities From One’s Own Will Induce One To Change His Evaluation of the Opinion or Ability in Question.
Experiment By Dreyer

Researchers have conducted experiments to test the level of aspiration of individuals.

In these experiments, an individual makes a series of trials in which he is unable to compare his performance with others like himself.

After such trials, the individual is made to take a series of trials and has access to the information about the performance of others like himself at each trial.

The experiment indicates that the individual’s aspiration level moves closer to the performance level of others like himself. Provided if others have scored quite differently as compared to himself.

Further, the change in aspiration level is less under these conditions. In other words, the fluctuations in performance are more stable.

However, the individual’s level of aspiration shows very little variability when the reported performance of others is about equal to the individual’s own score. Further, there is more stability in the evaluation of his ability.

Further, Dreyer showcased clearly through an experiment that the variance in the aspiration level of aspiration was smaller when the subject scored close to the group.

However, the variance in the aspiration level of aspiration was bigger when the individual scored far above or far below the group.

This proves that comparison with the performance of others specifies the level of an ability that an individual must attain. Further, such comparison gives stability to the evaluation.

Experiment By Festinger and Gerard

Festinger and Gerard find a similar situation with respect to opinions.

In a study, the individuals are first asked to form an opinion privately, without any comparison. Then, they are given the consensus of opinion in the group of which they are a member.

It is observed that the individuals become relatively less confident about the correctness of their opinion when they discover that most of the other group members disagree with them. Further, a good proportion of such individuals change their opinion.

However, the individuals become relatively more confident about the correctness of their opinion when they discover that most of the other group members agree with them. Further, there is rarely anyone in the group who changes his opinion.

Again, comparison with others tends to define what is a correct opinion and has lent stability to the evaluation.

Derivation C (from I, III B): An Individual Will Get Less Attracted to Situations Where Others Are Quite Divergent From Him for Both Abilities and Opinions.

This argument states that individuals will get attracted to groups in which members are relatively close to their own opinions or abilities. Provided the individuals have the drive to evaluate their abilities or opinions through comparison with others who are close enough.

Festinger and Gerard conducted an experiment. In this experiment, each person had to write down his own opinion on an issue. Further, each person received in return a slip of paper containing a tabulation of the opinions in the group.

Some persons in each group were intimated that most of the other members in the group held opinions close to their own.

The remaining persons in each group were notified that most of the other members in the group held opinions quite different from their own.

After the experiment, each person shared his liking for others in the group. In each experimental condition, the individuals less attracted to the group were the ones who thought that others held divergent opinions.

Derivation D (from I, II, III): A Discrepancy in a Group Regarding Opinions or Abilities Will Induce Group Members to Reduce the Discrepancy.

As stated earlier, an individual has a drive to accurately evaluate his own opinions and abilities. Further, such an evaluation is possible through comparison with others close to the individual with regard to abilities or opinions in question.

This means an individual’s drive to evaluate his ability or opinion through comparing himself with those close to him will induce him to take action. Such action will involve an effort to reduce discrepancies existing between himself and others with whom he compares himself.

Hypothesis IV: There is a Unidirectional Upward Drive in Case of Abilities That is Absent in Opinions.

Different performance levels have inherently different values with respect to the abilities of an individual. Typically, there is a value set on doing better and better.

This means that the higher the performance score, the more desirable such a performance is.

However, most opinions do not have an inherent, intrinsic basis for preferring one opinion over another. This is because of the absence of comparison.

Further, no opinion of itself will have any greater value than any other opinion if we think of an opinion pertaining to a specific issue as ranging along a spectrum.

We evaluate opinions using the subjective feeling that the opinion is correct and valid.

Hypothesis V: There are Non-Social Restraints That Make it Difficult or Even Impossible for an Individual to Change his Ability. These Non-Social Restraints are Absent for Opinions.

Change in Opinions

There is no further difficulty in achieving a change if an individual changes his mind about something or abandons one belief in favor of another.

However, there are some individuals who find it extremely difficult to change their minds concerning an opinion or belief.

Such resistance may arise because of personality characteristics or consistency with other opinions and beliefs.

But once an individual overcomes these resistances, there is no further restraint that makes it difficult for the individual to achieve such a change.

In the case of abilities, there are typically strong non-social restraints that make it challenging for an individual to change his ability or performance reflecting such an ability. Accordingly, you face great difficulty to bring about a change in such a case even if you believe you can perform a task or you are highly motivated to improve your ability.

Thus, it is clear that the action to reduce the existing discrepancy in the case of opinions is a relatively uncomplicated pressure towards uniformity.

In other words, you achieve a state of social inaction if you achieve uniformity in opinion.

Change in Beliefs

However, in the case of abilities, the action to reduce discrepancies interacts with the unidirectional push to do better and better. In other words, the pressure to reduce discrepancy and the urge to do better occur simultaneously.

Further, you never reach a state of social inaction with respect to the evaluation of abilities. This is because these twin pressures of reducing discrepancy and performing better lead to actions that never reach the state of inaction. These actions may include competitive behavior, action to protect one’s superiority and even some kinds of cooperative behavior.

Major Tendencies

There are three major tendencies:

Derivation D1: There will be tendencies to change one’s own position so as to move closer to others in the group when a discrepancy exists with respect to opinions or abilities.

Then, Derivation D2: There will be tendencies to change others in the group to bring them closer to themselves when a discrepancy exists with respect to opinions or abilities.

Derivation D3: There will be tendencies to cease comparing oneself with those in the group who are very different from oneself when a discrepancy exists with respect to opinions or abilities.

Hypothesis VI: The Cessation of Comparison With Others is Accompanied by Hostility or Derogation. Such Hostility is to the Extent That Continued Comparison With Those Persons Implies Unpleasant Consequences.

Generally, we consider the process of making others incomparable as the one associated with rejection from the group in the case of opinions.

However, this may or may not be the case in the case of abilities.

It is possible that derogation may not exist when you make individuals below yourself incomparable. However, the presence of unidirectional upward push may lead to derogation in some instances. These instances happen when you make individuals above oneself incomparable.

Corollary VI A: Hostility or derogation accompanies cessation of comparison with others in the case of opinions. In the case of abilities, this will not generally be true.
Derivation F (from I, II, and III): There are factors that increase a driver’s strength to evaluate some particular ability or opinion. Such factors will increase the “pressure toward uniformity” concerning the same.
Hypothesis VII: There are factors that increase a group’s importance as a comparison group for a particular opinion or ability. Such factors will increase the pressure toward uniformity concerning that ability or opinion within that group.
Corollary to Derivation B: The pressure toward reducing discrepancies concerning an opinion or ability will increase. Provided there is an increase in the importance of an ability or an opinion or an increase in its relevance to immediate behavior.

There exists no drive to evaluate an ability or an opinion if such an opinion or ability is not important to an individual.

In general, the drive for evaluation of ability or opinion will increase if the opinion or ability is:

  • important to an individual,
  • related to an individual’s behavior that is quite immediate
Corollary VII A: The stronger the pressure toward uniformity concerning abilities and opinions within a group, the stronger is the attraction toward the group.

It states that the more attractive a group is to a member, the more important that group will be as a comparison group for him.

Thus the pressure to reduce discrepancies operating on him is stronger when differences of ability or opinion exist.

As a result, the pressure to achieve uniformity will occur in all three ways. These include:

  • increased tendency to change one’s own position,
  • the increased effort to change the position of others, and
  • greater restriction of the range within which appreciable comparison is made.
Corollary VII B: The stronger the pressure toward uniformity concerning abilities and opinions within a group, the greater the relevance of the opinion or ability to the group.

The above statement means that the need for evaluation is strong when the opinion or ability involved is important for the life of the group. Such a need can be in terms of attaining satisfaction that pushes the members into the group.

Hypothesis VIII: The tendency of an individual to narrow the range of comparability becomes stronger. Such a tendency exists when the person is quite divergent from one’s own opinion or ability are perceived as different from oneself on attributes consistent with the divergence.

Gerard, Festinger, and Thibaut conducted experiments to prove opinions relating to Hypothesis VIII.

In each experiment, half of the groups were given the impression that the group was homogeneous. This means all the members of the group had an equal interest in as well as knowledge about the issue.

Whereas, the other half of the groups were made to believe that they are heterogeneously composed. This means there existed a considerable difference among the group members with respect to the interest in as well as the knowledge about the problem.

Furthermore, there was less communication about those holding extremely divergent opinions in the heterogeneous than in the homogeneous condition.

In other words, the perception of heterogeneity on matters related to the issue enabled the group members to narrow their range within which they actively compared themselves with others.

Hypothesis IX: The relative strength of the three manifestations of pressures toward uniformity is different for those who are close to the mode of the group. This happens when there is a range of opinions or abilities in a group. Those close to the mode of the group have stronger tendencies to change the positions of others. However, such individuals have relatively weaker tendencies to narrow the range of comparison. Finally, those close to the mode of the group have much weaker tendencies to change their own position.

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Social Comparison Theory Examples

  • One of the significant social comparison theory examples is individuals suffering from life-threatening diseases like cancer comparing themselves with the worse-off individuals.
  • Another social comparison theory example is when teenage girls compare their bodies and outlook with the models or celebrities on social networking sites.
  • Social comparison takes place even in schools where children compare themselves with others similar to them in terms of academic scores.
  • One of the other social comparison theory examples is in relation to financial status in society.
  • Sports is another area where social comparison takes place in terms of making records, winning medals or trophies, etc.
  • Corporate culture is another setup where an employee’s performance is compared and analyzed to the best among the lot.

How to Test Social Comparison Theory?

Social and clinical psychology applies certain methods to evaluate social comparisons. These methods repeatedly assess the attributes, occurrences, and outcomes of social comparison.

The following are the methods used to test the Social Comparison Theory.

1. Recording Methods

A. Single-Contingent Recording

The signal-contingent recording is one of the most frequently used methods for collecting data on naturally occurring social comparisons.

This method includes prompting participants to record recent comparisons. Furthermore, multiple prompts are given to the participants within a day for recording data.

B. Event-Contingent Recording

The second most frequently used method to collect data on naturally occurring social comparison is the event-contingent recording.

In this method, the subjects of a study record the data each time they realize that they have made a social comparison.

C. Interval-Contingent Recording

Finally, some researchers even use the interval-contingent recording method. In this method, the subjects of a study record data pertaining to social comparison after a set amount of time.

However, the most commonly used scale to evaluate the differences in social life between two categories of people in the Rochester Interaction Record (RIR).

It is a diary procedure for assessing and characterizing patterns of social interaction in everyday life.

Here social interaction means all the instances that involve two or more people and in which each person’s behavior is in response to the behavior of the other.

Further, RIR is a flexible tool designed in such a way that it provides information with respect to different features of the subjects participating in the social comparison study. These features can be objective or subjective in nature.

Thus, the data collected using this measure can be used to describe and compare persons on a wide variety of interaction parameters.

2. Social Comparison Orientation

Gibbons and Buunk (1999) created an instrument to test individual differences in the tendency towards comparison with other people’s opinions and abilities.

This tool measures the tendency to engage in social comparison and captures important aspects of the self, the other, and the psychological interaction between the two. It is called the Iowa-Netherlands Comparison Orientation Measure (INCOM)

The INCOM tool comprises 11 core items in the form of statements about the self-comparisons of individuals with others. Further, each individual responds to such a statement on a five-point scale ranging from A, strongly disagree, to E, strongly disagree.

This method of testing Social Comparison theory has proven valid and reliable based on a wide range of empirical tests.

3. Other Measures

As per Festinger, people seek to make comparisons against similar others when the objective means for evaluation are not available.

It is observed that Festinger’s Theory has now evolved. This is because theorists are now accepting that social comparison fulfills needs beyond mere self-evaluation.

Self-improvement and self-enhancement are also considered fundamental motives.

Likewise, individuals do not always seek similar comparison targets. This makes upward or downward comparisons with different degrees of preference against superior or inferior targets, respectively.

Research on physical appearance comparisons has produced consistent findings. Although, the motives for, and consequences of, upward and downward comparisons vary greatly.

These vary across study populations, domains of comparison, and contexts.

As per research, people with a strong tendency to make physical appearance comparisons experience greater body dissatisfaction and eating disorders.

Further, this tendency to make physical appearance comparisons mediates the relationship between sociocultural influences, body dissatisfaction, and disordered eating.

When Social Comparison Theory is Bad?

Social Comparison Theory proves to be bad in the following cases:

  • Individual undertakes upward social comparison where he feels dissatisfied as such an individual believes that he is worse off than similar others
  • People who are unhappy or depressed as they have low self-esteem, depression, and neuroticism
  • Individuals who rely on an external standard to judge themselves and to reduce uncertainty about their abilities as well as performance
  • People who do not have a clarity about self-concept and self-worth
  • A state of objective self-awareness in which an individual’s attention is focused on one’s self as an object
  • Individuals experiencing specific destructive emotions and behaviors such as envy, guilt, regret, blame, and lying.

What Role Certain Types of Magazines Played in Social Comparison Theory in Teens?

In recent years, the social comparison theory is used as a framework to explain how media and peer messages may shape individuals’ opinions about their bodies.

Further, pilot prevention programs have been conducted using the elements from the said theory.

As per Leon Festinger’s, Social Comparison Theory humans have an inner drive to evaluate their opinions as well as their abilities.

In other words, every human being has a tendency to evaluate his own beliefs about the situation in which he exists. Besides this, he also has an urge to analyze what he is capable of doing.

As a result, such an evaluation of both opinions as well as one’s own abilities affects human behavior.

Also, an individual compares his abilities and opinions with those who have similar potentialities and beliefs.

Thus, individuals may evaluate their capabilities or opinions by comparing themselves with others depending upon the context of comparison.

Analysis

This means that such individuals compare themselves to others either to:

  • Evaluate one’s standing or position in a particular opinion or ability relative to others, or
  • Learn from others to improve upon a particular characteristic, or
  • Protect one’s self-esteem and self-worth from threats and to hold a positive view about oneself. In order to achieve this, an individual disregards the information that is not relevant to oneself. Further, he may also treat or describe other individuals as inferior with respect to a particular characteristic in which such an individual considers himself superior.

As mentioned above, a comparison target that seems similar to the individual may have a greater impact on his behavior. Whereas, a comparison target that seems dissimilar to the individual may not impact the outcome of such a comparison to a greater extent.

Research Study I

In research concerning body image, the researchers observed that the subjects mainly focused on evaluative comparisons. This is because body image comparison considers evaluation as a significant aspect.

Accordingly, doctors treating patients suffering from eating disorders and body image dissatisfaction focus on challenging the patient’s self-evaluations regarding her body shape and weight.

Research Study By Durkin and Paxton

Another study claimed negative behavioral outcomes in cases of individuals undertaking evaluative comparisons in respect of body image.

For instance, researchers Durkin and Paxton claimed that adolescent females who evaluated their body by comparing with idealised females were impacted negatively.

However, it was also observed that not all individuals get negatively impacted through social images as well as messages.

Research Study Based On Grounded Approach

A study was conducted to observe the participants’ own perceptions of and reactions to the comparison targets.

The researchers adopted a grounded theory approach – an approach that seeks to construct a theory systematically-obtained and analyzed data. Strauss and Corbin and Dey introduced this research approach.

In this study, 20 participants (including 11 females and 9 males) were interviewed on a one-on-one basis. The interview comprised questions pertaining to the:

  • types of media that the adolescents consumed,
  • with whom did they consume such a media, and
  • what messages did they receive about physical and personal characteristics.

For instance, they were asked questions like:

  • What do you like about teen magazines?
  • How do you think magazines influence the way you would like to look?
  • Would you talk with your friends about how people in magazines and on television look?

Results of the Study

The outcome of the study suggested that adolescents used social comparison processes to know about ‘identity development.

Social information gained through teen magazines helped adolescents in defining themselves. Further, it also helped them set rules and boundaries.

Thus, it is clear from the results of the study that social comparison processes conform with the belief that the stage of adolescence is a time when an individual experiences a major transformation.

It is during this time that adolescents have to develop the self and build their identity. In other words, adolescents have to define their boundaries and differentiate themselves from others.

Accordingly, it was observed that body image was an important aspect of self-representation for adolescents. Furthermore, it was also observed that sex, social support networks, and the context in which adolescents compare themselves socially influenced their social comparison process.

Also, the researchers noticed that peers played a significant role in terms of understanding the received social information and comparison targets.

It is important to note that in the context of social comparison theory, there is limited research with regards to recognizing the significance of other aspects of comparison.

Social Comparison and Media

It was observed that the media played an important role in social comparison. The adolescents selected specific comparison targets.

Such comparison targets were either similar in terms of age, experiences, etc., or inspiring in terms of any attribute that the participant wanted to acquire.

Further, it was also observed that teenage girls were more likely to talk about media personalities with regards to their dressing, outlook, and so on.

Whereas, the teenage boys were more likely to talk about various sports.

I. Topics Teens Discuss

Besides this, teenage girls considered teen magazines and soap operas as important sources of learning. These media sources helped them to learn more about coping strategies to deal with similar challenges that other people faced.

In addition to this, teen magazines also offer suggestions in terms of clothing, make-up, and general appearance.

Thus, all such experiences point towards an improvement motive. Although, it is quite arguable as such things reinforce the norms of what girls should be like.

II. Clarity On Likes and Dislikes

Furthermore, it was observed that almost all the girls had a clear idea of what they liked and what they thought appropriate.

It is important to note that social comparison is inspiring in terms of self-improvement only if the comparison target is not considered as a competitor.

III. Areas of Interest

Also, the study showcased that the boys focused more on physical skill development. Whereas, the girls centered their attention on personal development in terms of social behavior and skills.

Besides this, the research also showed that the boys were less likely to talk about their bodies and body image. In fact, they gave more importance to functionality over appearance. Further, the boys were observed to talk about their bodies in terms of characteristics like height, speed, and strength for sports.

Though, both boys and girls knew the significance of having an ideal body and appearance.

The participants also admitted that the impact of the advertisements was less on themselves and more on others.

Also, all boys and girls engaging in enhancement or discounting actions were observed to perform such actions with regards to their physique and appearance.

Participants disregarded weight and shape-related comparisons as they believed that different individuals have different expectations. Further, such expectations depended on the degree of similarity between the persons.

Also, the teenage participants described models and celebrities as dissimilar to them.

What Kind of Perspective Does Social Comparison Theory Take on Human Nature?

The Social Comparison Theory helps us, humans, to know more about ourselves including our abilities, successes, and our personality through comparison with others.

We not only compare our opinions and values with those of others. But, we also compare our abilities and performances with those of other people.

Such a desire for social comparison originates due to our fundamental yearning to perform better. As a result, it drives our need for self-evaluation.

However, we undertake social comparison only when the issue at hand is relevant to us. Thus, relevance is a necessary precondition for social comparison.

Secondly, we humans compare ourselves only with those who are similar in terms of personal characteristics like gender, color, etc., or in terms of performance.

Further, Social Comparison Theory is a bidirectional process where we can compare ourselves with others who are better (Upward Comparison) or worse than us (Downward Comparison).

Thus, either of these two types of social comparison methods may affect our self-evaluation.

Accordingly, upward comparisons on relevant dimensions can threaten our self-evaluation. Further, it may put our self-esteem in danger.

However, such comparisons can also result in appreciating others for their achievements based on the parameters not relevant to ourselves. This is possible only if our self-evaluation is not under threat.

On the other hand, the downward comparisons may encourage self-evaluation and lead to the self-enhancement effect.

As we can see, Social Comparison can impact our self-esteem. As a result, it may lead to feelings of regret.

However, it may also drive us to reduce the inconsistency in performance relative to the comparison target. Thus, it can help us in improving our performance.

But, social comparison in terms of performance may at times result in challenges like causing harm or being a target to vice comments.

Schacter’s Theory of Emotion and Why the Social Comparison Theory is Relevant?

Schachter’s Two-Factor Theory of Emotion

Schachter’s theory is a two-factor or two-step theory. In the first step, an individual experiences the state of physiological arousal by assimilating the stimulus input.

Then, in the second step, the individual perceives the state of arousal in terms of the characteristics or attributes of the stimulus input.

Such a cognitive process of perceiving and labeling feelings as the presumed cause of arousal leads to specific emotional experiences.

Like James, Schachter equated emotion with emotional experience.

Accordingly, the degree of arousal determines the intensity of the emotion. Further, the additional cognitive element of labeling the state of arousal provides the quality of the emotion.

Thus, attribution or labeling of arousal to different evoking events produces different emotions.

At first, confrontation with a desperate dog and reuniting with a beloved person cause similar physical arousal. However, an emotion of fear, as opposed to joy, is evoked once you attribute this state of arousal to danger versus reunion.

Schachter: The Psychology of Affiliation

In 1959, Schachter expanded the domain of social comparison and included affiliation as one of the components of social comparison.

He showcased via his experiments that the probability of experiencing an electric shock caused fear in the subjects.

As a result of the underlying fear, most of the subjects desired to wait with some other subject rather than escaping the experiment.

Further, Schachter observed that such subjects had the desire to wait with an individual who was in a similar situation.

The subjects had such a desire as they wanted to compare and evaluate their emotional reactions.

I. Downward Comparisons

In 1981, Will’s postulated that individuals engaged in downward comparisons when their self-esteem gets threatened.

Here, downward comparison means comparing oneself with the less competent individuals for self-enhancement.

There were other studies that also showcased that individuals with threatened self-esteem prefer downward comparisons.

Further, there are studies that showcase that comparing oneself with the worse-off leads to improvement in mood.

Besides this, a number of studies showcase that patients suffering from serious diseases like cancer often compare themselves with worse-off individuals.

As a result of such a downward social comparison, the patients perceived themselves to be better off relative to others facing a similar stressor.

II. Upward Comparisons

Taylor and Lobel conducted a study including dissatisfied as well as satisfied married couples.

The study showcased that individuals with a high degree of marital dissatisfaction have a stronger desire to affiliate with others. This is because such individuals have greater self-evaluative and self-improvement needs.

Whereas, the individuals with a low degree of marital dissatisfaction have a relatively weak desire to affiliate with others.

Though, it is directly not apparent that marital stress would result in a stronger affiliative tendency. But, there are a number of experiments indicating that stress may lead to a reduced desire for affiliation.

These results have been observed in cases of individuals with anxiety as they encounter embarrassing or ego-threatening circumstances.

Schachter also claimed that individuals experiencing uncertainty in their marriage also have an increased tendency to an affiliate.

Criticisms of Schachter’s Social Comparison Theory

I. Less Evidence

As per studies, an individual’s uncertainty with regards to his emotional reactions increases the desire for affiliation for such an individual.

Although, there is not much evidence showcasing that uncertainty leads to increased affiliation in individuals in real life.

II. Affiliation in Downward Direction

Also, there is evidence that individuals affiliate in a downward direction when they are under stress. However, there is little evidence that individuals affiliate in an upward direction under such circumstances.

Studies showcase that individuals have a general tendency to affiliate with slightly better comparison targets, especially in cooperative setups.

But, Taylor and Lobel’s model proposes that upward affiliation would exist specifically under stress.

Accordingly, individuals with a high level of marital satisfaction are not motivated to affiliate with others who are relatively better. This is because they feel that they will not learn anything from such individuals.

Whereas, individuals with a low level of marital satisfaction may feel motivated to affiliate with relatively better couples. This is because such other couples would teach them how to handle marital problems.

However, both the groups would find it aversive to associate with the worse off individuals to a certain extent. This is partly because the couples in both groups have the risk of identifying with such couples.

III. Women Affiliate Relatively More

Finally, Dabb and Helmreich observed that women have a greater tendency to affiliate under stress relative to men.

Further, they also observed that women talked about their personal problems as well as their marriage with others more relative to men.

Besides this, women are more sensitive to relationship challenges relative to men. As a result, women are expected to affiliate more compared to men specifically under stressful conditions.

Why Social Comparison Theory is Relevant?

I. Importance of Needs

You satisfy needs like recreation, excitement, and so on without comparing yourself with others.

However, you need to compare yourself with relevant comparison targets to satisfy certain non-evaluative needs like comfort and physical support.

Among such non-evaluative needs, you can evaluate and satisfy only a certain set of needs through affiliating with other people socially.

In other words, you cannot evaluate all abilities, opinions, and emotions through affiliation.

II. Intensity of Needs

The abilities and opinions must have some significance if each is to induce affiliative tendencies.

This means you must experience a fairly intense emotion at once. Further, it must become difficult for you to label such emotion in order to arouse affiliation behavior.

III. Level of Ambiguity

Additionally, individual differences also have an impact on the degree to which social comparison enables a person to evaluate his abilities, opinions, and emotions.

IV. Different Threshold

In addition to the above-mentioned need dimensions, each individual may have a separate threshold of arousal for affiliation.

This is to say that some abilities, opinions, and emotions will evoke affiliation in some persons. Whereas, these will never reach an affiliative threshold in others.

Further, Schachter (1959) did not prove that there existed a need for social comparison. Rather, he demonstrated the utility of employing this hypothesized need as an explanatory concept in considering affiliation.

How to Cite Leon Festinger Theory of Social Comparison APA?

You can cite Leon Festinger Theory of Social Comparison APA in the following manner:

In-text: (Festinger, 1959)

Your Bibliography: Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117–140.

Social Comparison Theory and Social Media

Social media provides great opportunities to individuals for social comparison. Consciously or unconsciously, people engage themselves in various social comparison functions on social platforms.

Such functions are of the nature of self-evaluation or self-enhancement.

As per Leon Festinger’s Theory of Social Comparison, humans have a desire to compare themselves with others. This is because it serves a variety of functions.

These functions may include affiliation needs, self-evaluation, taking inspiration, making decisions, and regulating emotions.

Further, people undertake upward social comparison when they compare themselves with those superior to them having positive characteristics.

Whereas, people go for downward social comparison when they compare themselves with individuals inferior to them having negative characteristics.

As mentioned earlier, upward social comparison is useful when it inspires people to become more like their comparison targets. However, such a comparison can make people feel inadequate. It may also induce them to undertake poor self-evaluation and as a result experience negative feelings or regret.

On the contrary, the downward social comparison may at times make people feel negative. This is because such a comparison showcases the adversity of the situations or how worse things can be.

However, most of the time, such a comparison leads to improvements in self-evaluations.

Thus, the following is the impact of using social media on human behavior.

Social Media and Social Comparison Negative Impact

  • Most of the social comparative information is in a positive direction (Upward Comparison), thus making people feel inadequate
  • Viewers believe that other users are happier and more successful than themselves leading to negative self-evaluations
  • Temporary exposure to social comparison information on social media has a damaging impact on the Self-Esteem of the viewers
  • High-frequency use of social comparison is associated with increased depression and decreased well-being

Social Media and Social Comparison Positive Impact

As per a study, watching strangers’ positive posts on social media must have a negative impact on viewers’ emotions as per social comparison theory.

Accordingly, individuals having a tendency to compare themselves with others showcased lower positive affect. Such a positive impact was typically noticed when the viewers observed the positive posts rather than neutral or no posts.

However, strangers’ positive posts must have a positive impact on viewers’ emotions as per the emotional contagion effect.

Accordingly, individuals not having a tendency to compare themselves with others reported higher positive affect. Such a positive impact was typically noticed when the viewers observed the positive posts rather than neutral or no posts.

Therefore, such findings indicate that differences among individuals in terms of perceiving social information have an opposite impact on their behavioral response.

The American Academy of Pediatrics claimed in a report that the use of social media can lead to depressive symptoms.

However, there are authors who believe that social media use is not related to depressive symptoms or is associated with decreased depressive symptoms.

As per their belief, the impact of social media use depends on the particular social media activities that individuals engage themselves in.

A study suggests that viewing other individuals’ positive posts has negative effects on the mood of the viewers. This is due to envy and the feeling that others have a better life.

However, emerging research from the point of view of the emotional contagion effect suggests that positive posts from other individuals induce positive emotional responses among viewers. This is because the viewers adopt the positive emotions that others express in their posts.

Social comparison and emotional contagion perspectives, thus, predict opposing ways in which viewing positive social media posts affects mood.

Social Comparison Theory Articles

The following are some of the important Social Comparison Theory articles that you must read:

S.No.Journal TitleCitationsLinks
1.Festinger, L. (1950). Informal social communication3,738https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1951-04528-001
2.Festinger, L. (1954). A Theory of Social Comparison Processes27,154https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/001872675400700202?journalCode=huma
3.Festinger, L., Schachter, S., & Back, K. (1950). Social pressures in informal groups; a study of human factors in housing.4,960https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1951-02994-000
4.Buunk, B. P., Collins, R. L., Taylor, S. E., VanYperen, N. W., & Dakof, G. A. (1990). The affective consequences of social comparison: Either direction has its ups and downs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(6), 1238–1249.1,135https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0022-3514.59.6.1238
5.Charles Horton Cooley (1983). Human Nature and the Social Order16,464https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/mono/10.4324/9780203789513/human-nature-social-order-charles-horton-cooley
6.Crocker, Jennifer, Thompson, Leigh L., McGraw, Kathleen M., Ingerman, Cindy (1987). Downward comparison, prejudice, and evaluations of others: Effects of self-esteem and threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 52(5), 907-916719https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/1987-25067-001
7.George R. Goethals (1986). Social Comparison Theory: Psychology from the Lost and Found. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 1986;12(3):261-278.403https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0146167286123001
8.George R. Goethals, John M. Darley (1987). Social Comparison Theory: Self-Evaluation and Group Life. Theories of Group Behavior. ISBN – 978-1-4612-9092-6250https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4612-4634-3_2
9.Gibbons, F. X. (1986). Social comparison and depression: Company’s effect on misery. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(1), 140–148.396https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0022-3514.51.1.140
10.Frederick X. Gibbons and Meg Gerrard. Effects of Upward and Downward Social Comparison on the Mood States.268https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/10.1521/jscp.1989.8.1.14
Advanced Psychology